Welcome to another episode of TechMan's infrequent series "I am Joe Sixpack's computer." Today's topic is "I am Joe's USB flash drive."
Back in the day, if you wanted to transfer information physically from computer to computer, you had to put it on a floppy disk.
Today, more than likely you use a small USB flash drive that you might have hanging on your keychain or even around your neck (if you're a real geek).
The less-than-one-ounce device goes by a number of names -- flash drive, thumb drive, jump drive, solid state memory among them. However the most recognized name is USB flash drive.
A flash drive is different from a hard drive in that it has no mechanical parts. This is good because mechanical parts wear out, get damaged or malfunction.
A flash drive consists of a small printed-circuit board that contains a memory chip and a controller chip protected by a plastic, metal or rubberized case. The drive also has a metal connector for a USB port on a computer or other device. The USB connector may be protected by a plastic cap (which TechMan always loses immediately) or can retract into the case. This is probably not necessary because the connector is not likely to be damaged in normal use.
Flash drives are fairly tough. TechMan can testify to this because he put several through both the wash and dry cycle without apparent effect until he decided to stop keeping them in his shirt pocket.
Your computer sees a flash drive as another hard drive. The flash drive doesn't need power to "remember" the data it stores. (An interesting but fairly unrelated fact is that most car radio memory that records station presets requires a trickle of power from the battery to preserve data, which is why you lose your presets when you remove your car battery.)
Flash memory can store all types of information. It stores photos in your digital cameras. An MP3 player is flash memory with extra software allowing the "data" (music) to play back as sound.
Flash drives first became available in 2000. IBM's DiskOnKey was the first in North America and held 8 MB, which is roughly 8 minutes of MP3 compressed music.
Flash drives are tougher, faster and smaller than hard drives. All computers contain some flash memory used for special purposes, but usually not for data storage. Why not? Because flash memory is relatively expensive and cannot store the amount of data a hard drive can.
A quick check of Web retail sites showed flash drives from 4 GB for $15 to 64 Gb for $130.
A 1 TB hard drive that costs about the same as a 64 GB flash drive has 16 times the capacity.
But flash memory is getting better and cheaper.
As flash memory has gotten roomier and less expensive, it has started showing up as storage in some computers. Most netbooks -- small, cheap limited-use computers that are all the rage right now -- use flash memory.
A new development in USB flash drives for Windows computers is the U3 "smart drive." This is a flash drive that contains software that allows your computer to run programs from the drive and allows the programs to write information to certain areas of your computer. That information is supposed to be erased when the flash drive is removed.
Although U3 drives can be useful for some purposes, for example computer repairmen who have to run software on computers they are fixing, TechMan is uneasy about them. He doesn't like the idea of programs running on your computer from an outside source.
So, Joe Sixpack, if you need to transfer files between computers or need some extra closet space or want to carry your digital junk around with you, get a USB flash drive and hang it around your neck. It will look a lot better than that gold medallion you wear.